Monday, July 15, 2013

Shaken Faith Syndrome - My Response Introduction and Ch 1

I was asked to read two books by my parents.  The first is "Shaken Faith Syndrome" by Michael Ash (an LDS apologist).  At first, I was going to simply get rid of the books, but then I decided to go through them and make some counter-points.  I was going to prove to myself (and to my parents) how shoddy the best of the LDS answers really are.  I have known it through my casual interactions with LDS apologetic information, but I haven't looked into myself in depth.  Well, here is my chance.  So far, I have gone through the first chapter (and the intro) of Ash's book, and here are the things that I found.  I apologize in advance, there isn't a lot of sense to the order in which these comments appear.  Some day I may take the time to organize this into a better flow, but for now, it will stay as is.

His academics are terrible.  He loves his logical fallacies.  Specifically, ad hominem attacks, poisoning the well, appeal to emotion, appeal to the masses, and begging the question, just to name a few.  Here are some more concrete examples.

He likes to assert things as being true without supporting evidence.  For example. Ash repeatedly asserts that anti-Mormon information is all blatant lies, complete fabrications, or taken out of context.  The constant assertion that LDS critics "purposely bear false witness" or give "blatant misrepresentations of truth" without any real examples (there is one weak example that I will discuss under "covering up") to support is claim is laughable from any intellectual standpoint.

"In many cases, there is really no way to resolve the issue without the input of additional information (such as the additional insights given by revelation or additional scripture)." -page xiii
This statement presumes that, a) further revelation and scripture are possible/exist and b) the other side doesn't have substantive arguments that have not been adequately addressed.  He states over and over again that there are "answers" to all "anti-Mormon" attacks, but he does not discuss how that implies that they have been answered satisfactorily.  He assumes that by merely discussing a concern, you have sufficiently guarded it against all attacks.  This is akin to assuming that because I have put up a fence of sticks, your tank cannot possibly get into my yard.

It is common to find Ash misrepresenting the position of his "opponents" to make them easier to attack, here is one prime example:  "While it is true that the Internet makes vast amounts of information available to people all over the globe, it is a fallacy to think that all information on the web is equal in quality." -page xi
News flash: nobody asserts that this is true.  However, by representing this as the "anti-Mormon" position, it makes is much easier for a doubting Mormon to nod their head and say yes (see Dale Carnegie's how to win friends and influence people, Carnegie mentions that one way to win people over is to get them to say yes and agree with you as much as possible).  Once the opposing side has been presented in such a ridiculous light, it becomes much harder to sympathize with them.

"...people tend to believe those things that they read." -page xi
He puts this as a negative.  Reality is people believe well corroborated stories.  He either does not understand the opposing positions well enough to accurately represent them, or he is willfuly engaging in deceipt.  Many "anti" sources are well documented, with ample research from primary sources, and given in context with the "pro" information.  Most Mormons leaving the church (who then become detractors) spend all of their initial research time only on "LDS approved" sources due to their church indoctrinated fear of the evil "anti-Mormon."  They only turn to outside sources once they are sufficiently deconverted due to the lack of real answers to hard questions that they are discovering every day.  This fear of outside sources is readily seen (and propagated) by Ash's book.

Speaking of "anti-Mormon", he used these terms all throughout his work, but he never bothers to define them.  What is "anti-mormon" anyway?  Anything that isn't church approved?  Anything that hasn't gone through a "faith-promoting" whitewashing (as advocated by Ash)?  Anything that casts a negative light (whether historically accurate or not) on LDS "heroes"?

Another fun quote:
"Search engines do not rank sites by the quality of their research but rather by popularity or even who pays the most." -page xi
This is silly.  Misrepresenting (or maybe he is simply ignorant) how search engines rank things does not help his point.  Google, for example, is a purist when it comes to search rankings, and being the clearly dominant search engine, this is an important point to make.  Google does not let people pay for search ranks (please, correct me if I am wrong), but ranking is done purely through their Page-Rank algorithm.  There are advertising slots that are sold (these appear above and to the side of the real results), but the only organisations that have the funding to pay for that much advertising tend to be those that are official LDS (see all of the Mormon ads, etc.).  Most LDS critical sites (such as tend to be grass roots efforts funded by individuals.  See also groups such as the More Good Foundation, which is a group that spawns tons of cloned websites in order to increase Google search ranks of pro-LDS information.  It doesn't help inform, it merely floods "anti" information away.

He seems to contradict himself at one point claiming little real religious education, but then also claiming that many people are coming across anti material.  He claims that most people are unaware, but he acts like everyone has access to this wealth of information.  Well, Mr. Ash, which is it?  Make up your mind.

Lots of appeals to emotion, lots of emotionally charged language.  If you are trying to make a strong, intellectual claim that all of the "anti" claims are groundless, why do you need to resort to gaslighting (more on this in a sec), emotions, ad hominem attacks, poisoning the well, etc.  Why do your facts not stand of their own accord, but require cheap devices (that sadly work all too well) to be forceful?

He likes to engage in a form of gaslighting.  By making the detractor position appear so unreasonable, by misrepresenting the position of "antis", by ignoring and discounting the validity of "anti" information or real concerns that LDS doubters have (and in some ways vilifying them), he creates a strong case for doubting your own beliefs and perceptions.  This is a form of gaslighting (a type of psychological abuse).  To attempt to discredit the doubters and detractors so is a reprehensible form of scholarship.  Shame on you Michael Ash.

"If Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, then the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the temple ceremonies, and all the doctrines which Joseph was instrumental in restoring, are true." -page xiii
Not only is this black and white thinking, which is a logical mistake, but it simply isn't true based on LDS philosophy.  This claims infallibility (or near infallibility) of  Joseph Smith.  If he was a prophet, then everything he revealed came from God, if he isn't, none of it is from God (according to this quote).  What about the stuff that has been shown to be wrong by simple science? (Book of Abraham, Kinderhook plates)  What about the stuff that, when pressed, the apologists themselves will claim that he was "speaking as a man."  If prophets are known to speak "as men," what measuring stick are we to use to determine which of their prophetic utterances come from God, and which from himself?  If prophets sometimes speak as men, how much of the Doctrine and Covenants is from God?  Which revelations can be ignored?  Did Joseph Smith make a mistake in the temple ceremonies, somewhere in the Book of Mormon, in something else he restored?  This is a question that is difficult to answer, even though it is a favorite defense of the Mormon "defenders of the faith."

"...inoculating them against the damage that might be inflicted by critical attacks." -page xiii
"Ideological inoculation, like medical inoculation, introduces a small dose of a harmful disease." - xiv
Things like this make me smile and puke at the same time.  Really, so facts are a disease and we need inoculation against them?  The truth needs no inoculation, it will stand on its own once all of the facts are examined.  Do we need to inoculate our children in elementary schools against "anti-gravity information" or against "anti-math" websites?  The notion is absurd, and yet the LDS people have all completely taken for granted that the one great truth that stands above all other truths needs defense against facts.

"Because faith is not a perfect knowledge..." -page 3
This is a nit-pick, but if faith is not a perfect knowledge, why is the basis of every testimony borne in the church "I know," not "I believe?"

"Questioning the things we do, believe, or accept is normal..." -page 3 (emphasis in original)
Really, then why is it vilified in church culture, and by church leadership?  Why are those that choose to publish church history and ask the hard questions (not in an "anti" fashion, but while trying to learn the truth and retain their faith) excommunicated (see editors of MormonThink, or men like Lyndon Lamborn).

At one point, Ash uses an LDS blogger for a lengthy quote.  Not only is this silly in an intellectual argument, but the blogger's comments are absurd.  The comparison is made between "questioning" and "doubt," where questioning now means that you are asking questions without sinning, where doubt now means that you are questioning while sinning.  This blogger completely ignores the validity of real doubts.  When you have no rational reason to obey a "God given" commandment, why do so?  This blogger says the following: "The power of doubts, often raised by those whose motives are themselves in question, to destroy faith, family, and hope, is markedly diminished the minute one says in sincerity, 'I will do the things the Lord has commanded whether my questions are resolved quickly or ever because...'". - found here
First off, this is begging the question of the truthfulness of that which you doubt.  When you are honestly trying to seek an answer to the question "Is this information true?" it is a logical fallacy to assume that the information is true before examining any other supporting or detracting evidence.  You need to examine both sides of the issue to get a full picture.  He assumes that doubters "destroy."  This is a commonly spread Mormon misconception.  Taking each one separately, those who destroy faith are those that spread falsehoods as fact (whether ignorantly or willfully), those who destroy family are those who hold religious observances over familial connections (all while professing families to be the most important thing on earth), and those who destroy hope are those who vilify and demonize those who simply (at one point) were seeking to acquire further light and knowledge.

On page 5, Ash tells a story about President David O. McKay.  As the story goes, McKay, as a young man, held severe doubts as to the truthfulness of the church, but he still held on tight to the rod and did everything he should, and came out a faithful member in the end.  I personally don't believe one bit of this story.  If President McKay had had such misgivings, doubts that "shook him," why would he make the choice to continue on in his path?  His motives to guide young people into staying in the church at all costs call into question the veracity of his story.  At one point the claim is made the McKay "never believed it for most of his life" (page 5), which doesn't add up with the purported behavior that followed (faithful LDS life for the rest of his days in spite of doubt).

He also likes to participate in "blaming the victim."  He makes claims that it is "too rigid" a belief system or too "fundamental" views that cause a person to disbelieve.  He also claims that members that believe have developed "mature ideologies."  These kinds of views are not helpful to positive relations with non-believers, although they help to ease the feelings of cognitive dissonance that felt by members hearing about those doubting and leaving the church.

Ash claims that "Critics, however, often ignore facts that do not fit their assumptions." (page 5)
To me this seems like projection.  I have never seem the amount of fact ignoring anywhere else in my academic and non-academic life experiences as I have among the LDS faithful and LDS apologists like Michael Ash.  If he wants to point fingers, he should remove the proverbial beam from his eye.  In fact, there are many so-called "anti" sources that seek to provide as balanced a view point as possible, and attempt to gather both the "faith promoting" side as well as the "faith detracting" side of the story.  There are many LDS critical sources that are very good at the academic honesty that is so lacking in Ash's work.

Ash has a whole section on Cognitive Dissonance, the ironic thing is that he quotes LDS researchers on the topic, and not an objective psychology expert.  Seems like an academic mis-step to me.  He claims that there are four ways to resolve cognitive dissonance.  The first seem to be those that he touts as admirable, and the last as dishonorable.  The first is to reject new information as false, he claims that this is effective, because (according to him) "most" anti-Mormon information is baseless propaganda anyhow.  Somebody needs to tell him that repetition does not make it so, but then again, isn't that what the Mormon faith teaches with regards to testimonies?

His second method of resolution is to reject the new information as unimportant, he then launches into a description of confirmation bias.  What he does not do, however, is to demonstrate how he (and those that follow his viewpoint) are avoiding making the same mistake of merely confirming their prior biases.  (Side note, another academic faux pas, he is citing a lot of FAIR sources, which doesn't add to his credibility, and doesn't prove his point.)

His third method of resolution is to add information to validate the original belief.  He makes a few more claims without any basis, and also assumes without reason to that all our prior beliefs are necessarily good and need to be retained.

His fourth method of resolution is to reject the old beliefs.  He again proceeds to assume that the correct move to make whenever we experience cognitive dissonance is to hold on to our old beliefs.  This is simply laughable.  There are plenty of times in (religious and not) situations where we are simply wrong and need to accept new information as accurate and true.  If we were to follow his advice in this section in all situations in life, we would always believe our first conceptualization of any given topic, and could never modify them.  Which is obviously silly.

I mentioned that I would discuss his section on "covering up" church history.  He claims that the church doesn't hide it, and he cites several (some current, most not) sources that discuss the polygamy of Joseph Smith.  He also asserts, without evidence, that it is the feeling of betrayal that makes people leave the church (his evidence is a Mormon pontificating on why people leave, not an actual study of why people leave, maybe he should have watched John Dehlin's clip?).  He makes a good point that the church may not be willfully covering things up, but if that is the case why are things still "hidden" in some ways?  His argument is that we should not expect to be discussing these things in sunday school or in the ensign, because these are meant as primarily faith promoting works.  This is simply not true.  As any long-term LDS member will testify, there are regular lessons and articles that are primarily historical information.  The fact that we do not discuss real history in these "historical" lessons is where the "cover up" and betrayal comes from.  The proper counter-argument from Ash would be that those are not mandated from the church, but come from Sunday School instructors themselves, but this is an evasive argument that ignores the real matter at hand.

Finally, he spends some time quoting posts from the "Recovery from Mormonism" message board (RfM), and he merely takes enough time to belittle the posters (or at least use language to automatically make them appear less credible).  In fact, he quotes one poster and uses a [sic] in  a four word quote.  Any respectable author will tell you that to use a [sic] is often inappropriate, it only serves to make the person you are quoting look foolish, unless you have a really good reason to do so.  In academic circles actively pointing out spelling errors like this is an insult, and serves no other purpose.  It may be necessary if the text is old (in which case it shows difference in language usage, colloquial usage, etc.), or for similar reasons.

Anyway, this first bit was an adventure.  Quite ridiculous, stay tuned for the next section of my reading.

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